Charlie Whiting: Formula One's unparalleled driving force
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Charlie Whiting: Formula One's unparalleled driving force

Charlie Whiting, who has died suddenly aged 66, was much more than his title of FIA race director suggests -- he was the heartbeat of Formula One for decades.

CharlieWhiting_afp
AFP

From enforcing bewildering technical regulations to solving driver disputes, ensuring track safety and smoothly handling the labyrinth of Formula One's high-tech race systems, Whiting did it all without drama and usually with a smile.


A giant of the sport behind the scenes, he was best known to fans as the finger on the button of the complex start sequence at every grand prix since 1997.


According to FIA president Jean Todt, Whiting, who leaves a wife and two children, was the "central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport". 


As the FIA Formula One director of racing, safety delegate and head of the sport's technical department, Whiting was responsible for the logistics of each grand prix.


He had been in the Melbourne paddock on Wednesday to oversee this weekend's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, but passed away after suffering a pulmonary embolism on Thursday morning. Coming just a day before practice begins, Whiting's sudden death hit especially hard.


He was a passionate pioneer of safety improvements, the most visible of which is the cockpit protection system -- or halo -- developed by Whiting after the fatal crash involving Jules Bianchi in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.


The device was widely attributed with saving the life of Charles Leclerc at last year's Belgian Grand Prix.


- Calming influence -

The drivers could count on Whiting as a fair adjudicator when rows arose. During the heat of battle, team radio would often crackle with the reassuring message "Charlie has been informed" to calm an irate driver.


Very rarely, it was Whiting himself who came under fire, though not for long.


At the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix Sebastian Vettel made a hasty apology, and received an FIA warning, after launching an expletive-filled tirade at Whiting over the airwaves after being impeded by Max Verstappen. 


Earlier that year, Whiting had to sort out the mess created by then F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's hasty attempt to spice up qualifying by introducing a countdown elimination clock. It was scrapped after just two races.


And a year later in Malaysia, Whiting and his safety team endured a sleepless night inspecting and repairing every inch of the 5.543-kilometre Sepang circuit to ensure it was safe after a loose drain cover caused Romain Grosjean to crash.


It was that meticulous attention to detail, combined with a down-to-earth nature and innate kindness that commanded the respect and admiration of all who knew him.


Englishman Whiting spent more than half-a-century in the sport, starting at the age of 15 when he helped his brother Nick to prepare saloon cars for racing in West Kingsdown, Kent.


He entered Formula One in 1977 with Hesketh Racing and moved on to Ecclestone's Brabham team.


He became chief mechanic for Nelson Piquet's world championship wins in 1981 and 1983 and later was promoted by Brabham to chief engineer.


Whiting joined the governing body, the FIA, in 1988 as Formula One technical delegate, tasked with scrutineering the cars to ensure they complied with regulations. He became race director in 1997.


"Formula 1 has lost a faithful friend and a charismatic ambassador in Charlie," said Todt. 


"All my thoughts, those of the FIA and entire motor sport community go out to his family, friends, and all Formula One lovers."


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